Books that Have Opened My Eyes

One of the best things about reading is that it opens your eyes to people, beliefs, and situations that are outside what’s familiar. I’ve lived a privileged, middle-class life, so it’s important that I learn from stories different from mine. Many books have made an impact on me, so today I’m highlighting a few of them that illuminated a specific topic.

Please note: Two books deal with rape and sexual assault, which I do address.

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THE BOOK THAT OPENED MY EYES TO THE EFFECTS OF POVERTY:
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx
by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

I knew about poverty before I read this book, of course. I knew poverty could hold people back, but I didn’t fully understand its ramifications until I read Random Family. This is a remarkable work of journalism by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc that follows a group of people living in the Bronx over several years of their lives. Their stories are full of addiction, drugs, sex, prison, broken relationships, and violence. It’s easy to say, “Just get an education. Just get a job. Just leave that situation.” But poverty often acts as a blockade. If you’re poor and might lose your housing, dealing drugs and making thousands of dollars might sound great. But dealing leads to more and more problems and the cycle keeps on going. This book showed me how easily poverty traps people and how difficult it is to transition to a better life.

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THE BOOK THAT OPENED MY EYES TO RACISM:
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness 
by Austin Channing Brown

One of the most striking things about this book is the author’s name. She reveals that her parents named her Austin so people would hear it and assume she was a white man. They knew this would make job searches easier and might allow her a foot in the door she might not have as a black woman. Reading that broke my heart. A child entering the world should be a time of joy; parents shouldn’t have to think about the future and prepare for eventual prejudice as they’re holding their newborn. This is a slim book, but it’s full of insights about race, and specifically speaks to the Church about what we can and should be doing better to advocate for and welcome people of color.

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THE BOOK THAT OPENED MY EYES TO THE EFFECTS OF TRAUMA: 
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

I read (and loved) Roxane Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist, so I knew she’d been raped as a 12-year-old. Hunger is the story of how that assault changed her life and her relationship with her body. With awe-inspiring vulnerability, Gay writes about how being overweight became a fortress to keep people away and how her family watched her spiral out of control and weren’t sure what to do. She talks about bad decisions she’s made, her relationship with food, and what she’s doing as an adult to manage her trauma. There are no easy answers or tidy endings here. This is a powerful memoir that shows just how much one event in a person’s life can completely change everything. Roxane Gay is one of the best writers alive today.

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THE BOOK THAT OPENED MY EYES TO THE WAR ON DRUGS:
Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari

In this book, Johann Hari presents a well-researched history of the war on drugs, revealing all the ways in which that war has caused additional damage and suffering. He includes powerful stories about Billie Holiday, drug cartels, and needle exchanges, among others. Hari weaves all of these threads into a convincing argument about the future and reform of the drug war. This is a gripping, thought-provoking book from start to finish.

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THE BOOK THAT OPENED MY EYES TO THE EFFECTS OF SOCIAL MEDIA:
American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers by Nancy Jo Sales

I work with kids every day, so I was curious about the role social media plays in their lives. I was unprepared for what I learned in this book.  Journalist Nancy Jo Sales interviews teen girls, so readers get firsthand knowledge of just how important social media can be to them. I was surprised that even when girls are getting bullied and have to deal with being oversexualized, they remain dedicated to their online worlds. My one complaint about this book is that most of the subjects Sales interviews are middle-class or higher, so there isn’t much information about how poorer kids interact with technology. I think that’s a big missing piece, but this book is still worth reading, especially for those of us who engage with kids on a regular basis. After I finished reading, I was overwhelmed with gratitude that Instagram and Snapchat didn’t exist while I was growing up.

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THE BOOK THAT OPENED MY EYES TO MISOGYNY AND RAPE CULTURE:
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

There are aspects of all these books that shocked me, but I don’t think any of the other books left me feeling quite as disgusted as Missoula. Jon Krakauer explores how little seriousness is sometimes given to rape and assault allegations, especially when the alleged perpetrators are people the community admire, like college football players. If I could, I’d make this book required reading for every person heading off to college. They need to know just how drastically rape and assault can change lives, whether justice is served or not.


What about you? What are the books that have opened your eyes?

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